Autistic people, substance use, and vulnerability to exploitation and county lines

This article was co-authored by David Gray-Hammond and Katie Munday

Trigger warnings: This article discusses gaslighting, trauma, criminal exploitation (on various topics including sexual exploitation), substance use, mental health, cuckooing, county lines.

Due to the extensive trauma that we experience as Autistics in our formative years, many of us find ourselves seeking connections with other people. Trauma can be a very isolating experience, and naturally we desire love and support, but don’t always look for it in the right places. We often don’t even know what healthy love and support looks like, we are looking for some elusive phantom of love without any idea of what it could be. This is common place for those who have had traumatic lives; disconnected families, intergenerational trauma, all of these things remove the prospect of having a safe space in which we can grow and develop.

This creates an environment where we become susceptible to being taken advantage of by people and groups who show us the slightest bit of interest. We find ourselves in circles which are exciting, fast paced, and offer support (at a price). These groups often have clear hierarchies and expectations that on the surface appeal to Autistic people who thrive within structured environments. However there are a lot of expectations that are left unsaid.

When considering the criminal exploitation of Autistic people, we must also consider the situations that lead to them being in such a position in the first place. There is a significant overlap between Autistic people and substance users, albeit largely unacknowledged. This has a distinct relationship with the extensive trauma we have already mentioned; when the environment is incompatible with our wellbeing, we look for ways to numb the discomfort. Substances can make it easier to mask in environments where we feel unsafe, and give a sense of community by allowing us to feel like we finally fit in somewhere in society.

Due to the criminalisation of substance use in many parts of the world, drug and alcohol consumption can very easily lead to criminal activity and exploitation. Once you become a regular user of mind-altering substances, it is no longer inconceivable to do things outside of your previous ethos to continue your habit, and strengthen relationships within organised groups. Your boundaries are no longer solid, but malleable, depending on what is required of you to access the substances of your preference. This breakdown of boundaries makes it easier to be manipulated, by people you are gaslighted into believing have your best interests at heart.

The substances alter your reality, as do the people around you.

What does exploitation look like?

Exploitation can take many forms. It usually starts with a small favour between friends. The frequency and significance of the favours may increase, but the perceived balance in reciprocity isn’t what we are led to believe.

Some of us are made to do things that we are completely uncomfortable with, but feel we have no choice in. It can range from violence to sexual exploitation. It can represent an escalation in what we are doing, one minute you are smoking a joint, the next there is heroin on the table. While there is no such thing as a gateway drug, there are people who act as gateways, ushering us deeper into a world that we are no longer comfortable to be in.

Perhaps two of the best known forms of criminal exploitation in the UK are cuckooing and county lines.


This particular form of exploitation involves a criminal individual/organisation taking over an individuals place of residence. The victim is always vulnerable in some way, usually due to age, disability, and/or substance use. The criminal enterprise will then use that persons home as a base from which to perform criminal acts such as drug dealing.

County Lines

County lines refers to the trade lines of criminal enterprises that cross boundaries, the name specifically refers to the phone lines used, but it is more complicated than that. Vulnerable people, usually children, often disabled, are sent up and down the country to distribute illicit goods. This is often used to settle debts between the individual and the dealer.

When considering an Autistic person who has fallen into this kind of exploitation, there are a few notable features that should be considered.

  • The person may suddenly be “gifted” expensive items such as new phones by their friends.
  • There may be a distinct change in social activity, such as suddenly spending a lot of time out of the home, socialising at odd hours.
  • They may be reticent to allow people into their home, especially in the case of cuckooing.
  • There may a change in attitudes and behaviour surrounding substance use.
  • Change in behaviour or inconsistent behaviour may indicate substance use.
  • Having a knowledge of things outside of their age/stage of development. This may be harder to define in Autistic people.

Protective factors for Autistic people

In short, this issue comes down to socioeconomics. Autistic people with adequate access to the right support are much less likely to be exploited. Most importantly, access to the Autistic community should provide a much safer and more accepting avenue to meaningful relationships. Other considerations are access to adequate housing, support with mental health and substance use, positive and affirming information on being Autistic, access to work and education, also, access to welfare benefits where required.

This is not going to end until substance use is treated as a public health issue, rather than a criminal issue. It is also important that we continue to dismantle systemic and societal bigotry such as racism, transphobia, and ableism as those who are exploited are often multiply marginalised, this is especially true for Autistic people.

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